A Mind in Line

The Labyrinth

by Saul Steinberg
New York Review Books, 271 pp., $39.95
The Line, 1959 by Saul Steinberg
Saul Steinberg: The Line (detail), 1959; a spread from Steinberg’s The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth, a collection of drawings Saul Steinberg made between 1954 and 1960, reached bookstores too late for the 1960 Christmas market. Its consequently dismal sales gave the forty-six-year-old artist his first dose of public indifference. A Romanian by birth who had found overnight success at cartooning in 1930s Milan, Steinberg had arrived in New York in 1942, preceded by a run of mailed-in work for The New Yorker that laid the ground for instant and enduring American acclaim. Irritated though he was by his book’s flat reception, he might really have been more in the mood to ponder a flop (which he said left him feeling “as flattered as Stendhal”) than to add another conventional success to his total. “I admire more and more people’s literary qualities,” he would write to his friend Aldo Buzzi in 1962. “I mean the possibility of recounting a fact or making a true and proper observation. Most people transform things that happen to them into things read in the newspaper. Those who don’t know how to tell things are scary.”

Among Steinberg’s eight published compilations, which begin with All in Line (1945) and end with The Discovery of America (1992), The Labyrinth is the thickest and most elegantly sequenced; its spreads are the most various and serenely confident in design. Its publication marked the end of a year of midlife (breakup of marriage, death of father, overturning of professional practices) that, by coinciding with the turnover in decades, 1950s for 1960s, kept the growing tumult of Steinberg’s life in sync with his times. On the book’s cover, a rabbit residing in the hollow head of a hawk-nosed mannequin-man peers out through an eyehole at dangers that are left unspecified.

The Labyrinth is the Steinberg book that was in the house when I was growing up in Fresno, California. I must have been about seven years old when I first opened it on my lap. Unlike the rest of my family I was not a natural reader; what absorbed me were drawing and studying pictures. I spent a lot of time seated at the end of the couch beside the shelf where The Labyrinth lived. Its neighbors were some thirty titles by Charles Addams, André François, Walt Kelly, Virgil Partch, Charles Schulz, and William Steig, from which I gradually learned to read. The New Yorker arrived at the house weekly, and I noticed, and saved, the Steinberg covers, which were coming at a steady pace in the early 1970s. But The Labyrinth claimed a special place in my attention.

Despite lacking text of any kind, this book told even a child that it was meant to be leafed through from start to finish. The momentum begins on the first page, where a draftsman is…

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